The Clayton M. Christensen Reader (2016) can be read in an afternoon, but its professional and personal lessons might serve well throughout one’s career.
The book collects eleven Harvard Business Review articles written or co-written by the Harvard Business School professor between 1995 and 2015 on the evolution of industries, companies, markets, executives, and management theories.
Using that strategy, less-established competitors can supplant market leaders by developing products—like transistor radios, smaller-than-standard hard drives, and personal computers—that might “perform far worse along one or two dimensions that are particularly important to [mainstream] customers,” but that “introduce a very different package of attributes” valued “in new markets or new applications.”
● Thus, in “Disruptive Technologies” (1995), Christensen warned dominant companies to look beyond their valued customers and successful offerings.
Managers should themselves pursue potentially disruptive technologies—especially those opportunities identified by “technical personnel,” as opposed to “[m]arketing and financial managers” or “lead customers”—by “creat[ing] organizations [such as ‘skunk works projects’] that are completely independent from the mainstream business.” Executives should research potential markets “by experimenting rapidly, iteratively, and inexpensively with both the product and the market.”
● Twenty years later, in “What is Disruptive Innovation?”, Christensen complained that his theory’s “core concepts have been widely misunderstood and. . . basic tenets frequently misapplied. Furthermore, essential refinements. . . appear to have been overshadowed by the popularity of the initial formulation.”
In particular, he insisted that the term did not apply to every “situation in which an industry is shaken up and previously successful incumbents stumble,” but only to the displacement of established businesses by upstarts that at first serve lower-level customers (and sometimes, as with personal photocopiers, entirely new markets), “frequently at a lower price,” but “then move upmarket, delivering the performance that incumbents’ mainstream customers require, while preserving the advantages that drove their early success.”
Thus, Uber did not qualify as a disruptive innovation, because it had neither exploited a low-end market that had been overlooked by San Francisco’s established taxi companies nor pursued “people who found the existing [ride-for-hire] alternatives so expensive or inconvenient that they took public transit or drove themselves instead.”
On the other hand, Netflix was a disrupter, once it moved from supplying DVDs by mail to “becom[ing] appealing to Blockbuster’s core customers, offering a wider selection of content with an all-you-can-watch, on-demand, low-price, high–quality, highly convenient approach. . . [F]ailing to respond effectively to the trajectory that Netflix was on led Blockbuster to collapse.”
Christensen also resisted the loose use of “disruptive” to characterize any successful innovation. Pointing to the large number of failed Web-based stores, he noted, “Not every disruptive path leads to a triumph, and not every triumphant newcomer follows a disruptive path.”
He concluded by observing that even companies that, as he’d recommended, reevaluate their own operations won’t necessarily be immune to disruptive innovation: in the complex and fluid world of business, “Sometimes this [advice] works—and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Indeed, his more general essay, “Why Hard-Nosed Business Executives Should Care About Management Theory” (2003), had already observed that, “in business, as in medicine, no single prescription cures all ills”; but added that “Progress comes from refining theories to explain situations in which they previously failed. . . .”
Law students and lawyers should find much of value in considering the ways in which disruptive innovation (most recently, the changes wrought by ChatGPT and other “generative AI” technology) threatens—and provides opportunities to—not only their current and potential clients, but also their own careers and profession.
● Christensen’s most far-reaching and personal article, from 2010, bears the title of his 2012 book: “How Will You Measure Your Life?”
He wrote that he concluded each semester by asking his business school classes “to find cogent answers to three questions: First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail? Though the last question sounds lighthearted, it’s not.”
Christensen cautioned that the temptation to deviate “just this once” from one’s principles “suckers you in, and you don’t ever look at where that path ultimately is headed and at the full costs that the choice entails. . . . You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.”
This counsel corresponds with part of the “Ten-Step Program to Resist Unwanted Influences” that Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (1933- )—most memorably connected to the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment (1971) and to the broken window theory (1969)—provided in his book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (2007), and on the associated website, as “a starter kit toward building individual resistance and communal resilience against undesirable influences and illegitimate attempts at persuasion.”
Zimbardo “discourage[s readers] from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumors, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace.”
Both works, in their own ways, present personal morality as something that, like a company’s products, should be carefully researched and developed.
Like Christensen’s theory, one’s morality should be defined as clearly as possible, although it might not yet (or ever) be comprehensive.
But one’s moral line, unlike a line of products, should not be self-disrupted or compromised to head off competitors, and should not be subject to “pivots” or “iterations” induced only by the pressure of peers, employers, or the market.
Otherwise, as Groucho Marx joked more than eighty years ago, “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”